family, grief and loss, Inspiration, Uncategorized

The Working Title Is…Wisdom from a Christmas Stocking

Behold, a hand-knit depiction of a right jolly old elf. And just as it is written, his droll little mouth is drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin is as white as the snow.

This is my Christmas stocking and my oldest personal possession. Almost exactly 51 years ago, this stocking was my traveling companion on the journey to meet my parents for the very first time.

These days, it is referred to as Gotcha Day or Homecoming Day; the day on which a person joins a family through adoption. But in 1967, it was simply thought of by my adoptive parents as the day their prayers were answered.

For the first time, they held in their arms the baby girl they had said “yes” to, the baby girl who had spent the first six months of her life in a foster home because she was born with a congenital deformity that labeled her handicapped and ineligible for immediate placement in a forever home.

I remember my mother telling me that the adoption agency would only tell her and my father that they had a baby for them, but the baby was handicapped. They would not reveal the nature or severity of the disability. My mom told me they didn’t even have to think twice about their answer. God had sent them this baby, and they were prepared to welcome her home.

And so they did. On a Wednesday afternoon in December, the little girl they would name Kathleen Mary first unreservedly offered a toothless smile in their arms as the social worker explained the very simple care of her “handicap” which was ultimately disclosed as a dislocated hip that would be guided into place within a few months time.

The precious Christmas stocking that accompanied the baby was filled with teething toys and rattles that had become comfort items during their little girl’s first six months of life. The stocking was handmade by her foster mother as her foster father, almost certainly, offered his loving praise over her handiwork.

My mother was told that this foster family had recently petitioned to adopt the baby girl but had been denied because their ages fell above the agency’s maximum allowable for adoption. During my first six months of life, this foster couple’s loving care included having me baptized at St. Agnes Catholic Church.

The social worker smiled when my mom told her they would give me the name Kathleen Mary, saying only that it was incredibly close to that which the foster family had me baptized.

A strange truth to many, I have never had the desire to seek my birth parents, but I have thought of this foster family every Christmas; throughout my childhood as my Christmas Stocking was hung with care in our living room and filled by Santa with treats galore and throughout adulthood as each year it holds a place of honor near our Christmas tree. When I learned a few years back that St. Agnes Parish was closing, I called to inquire about baptismal records with the hope to identify these foster parents who tenderly cared for me the first six months of my life.

I wanted them to know how blessed I had been to be placed in my forever home with a family whose faith life was the foundation of who they were and all they did. I wanted them to know that I had a remarkable journey through Catholic schools and the finest Jesuit university in all the land; a journey that led me to a lifetime of friendships and the love of my life. I wanted them to know I was a mom to two beautiful daughters of my own whom, unreservedly, have offered me their smiles for decades. I wanted them to know I still have that Christmas stocking and it means the world to me. I wanted to say thank you.

My call to the Parish Office was placed just days before it was set to close. In fact, the voice on the other end of the phone quickly led me to believe that the elderly pastor was personally manning the phones…and that I caught him in the middle of his lunch.   Between my inability to offer a concise summary of my request and his really loud chewing, I offered to call him back. Well, life interrupted, and I never did.

Not the dramatic ending you were hoping for, I bet.

I most likely will never know the identity of that foster family. In addition, those wonderful adoptive parents, my Mom and Dad, are now both deceased. But I have that stocking to console me–on their combined behalf– over the delicate and often paradoxical emotions of a season that almost demands one to be “merry and bright.”

As I hold this stocking in my hands, I envision foster parents handing over a baby they had nurtured over six months time and had petitioned to adopt. My heart hurts at the thought.

As I hold this stocking in my hands, I have a much clearer vision of the adoptive parents first holding a still bald, toothless baby because that joyous story is detailed in a memory narrated by my Mom. My heart bursts at the thought.

The wisdom offered by this Christmas stocking is not unique to my life story. In fact, it should offer a universal consolation.

It’s important to acknowledge that there are feelings beyond our control that impact our lives everyday and are often exacerbated during the holidays for a variety of reasons.

The holiday season may pose painful struggles; certainly for those who have experienced the death of a loved one, but also for people who yearn for the Christmases they had, but have since lost, or perhaps desired but never even had. Some may crave that family closeness…past or present, imagined or real. Others may mourn unfulfilled childhood desires…realizing your life didn’t travel the path you had hoped.

The wisdom of my Christmas stocking reminds me that in the midst of the darkest winter, the path to an amazing spring is waiting for me…in my own heart.

Maybe the universal message is one of accepting and loving who you are right now, especially if you are sad or angry or feeling empty or lost. Whatever the case may be, you must accept where you are in order to usher in the day when the light returns to your soul and your spirit.

Because I’ve experienced the darkness, I can savor the light in my life.

This past weekend, the candle of joy was lit on Advent wreaths in countless churches and homes around the world. It is that call to joy that led me to consider the wisdom of my Christmas stocking and pray for everyone in my life for whom joy is a really, really tough sell this year…be it because of disappointment or regret, an unfulfilled dream or a broken heart represented by an empty chair at this year’s holiday table.

I pray for strength and for peace in the hearts of those who are hurting.

And I thank God for the perspective my faith provides me, for the strength the Advent season instills within me, and for the belief that an Easter Sunday will follow every Good Friday in my life, until that day when God reunites me with those I loved and have lost– and those I have loved and never even met.

Hoping your Christmas stockings are filled with light, I wish Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.








The Working Title Is…There Ought to be a Word for That

I have long known that happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive emotions. And it’s no mystery to anyone who knows me that I tend to experience emotion on a plane that is both guttural and transparent.

I remember, as a child, my Grandma Hogan comforted me by holding my pink, splotchy, tear-stained face in her hands saying, “The Irish feel things deeply…in a way others just can’t understand.”

I’m not sure how directly my emotions are tied to “the old sod,” but I do know that there is an undeniable depth to my feelings. I’ve experienced happiness and joy where my heart beats so loudly I can hear it in my head and feel as though it has expanded in my chest cavity to the point it will likely explode.

I have felt sadness so profoundly that my chest physically hurt. The weight of anguish made it difficult to even breathe, and when I finally surrendered enough to exhale, I was certain that I lost something of myself in that breath.

I have felt the anxiety only parents know when watching their child compete or perform. With bated breath, it seems as if your heart pauses mid-beat, only to resume once the child’s task is complete and pride replaces the post once held by anxiousness.

And then there are those occasions where I have felt completely happy and completely sad simultaneously; not half and half, but if there existed a gauge to measure emotion, it would read 100% happy and 100% sad.

I just don’t know how to describe that conflux of emotion in a single word.

I remember feeling it for the first time the day my Grandma Hogan’s cat died, the same day she held my face in her hands.

We didn’t have a pet of our own yet, and I wanted nothing more than an animal to love that would love me back. That’s why I hated that damn cat with every fiber of my being. I’d chase it around my grandma’s house yelling, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” But it ran from me every time, and on the rare occasion I did catch her, she’d hiss and scratch at me until blood gushed from my single-digit aged skin.

Damn you, Beauty, for forcing me to pretend it didn’t hurt, and forever proving that emotional scars heal far slower than physical ones.

I’m not going to lie. I was thrilled that cat was dead, until, that is, we walked into Grandma’s kitchen and saw her crying. I never saw my grandma cry before. This tiny woman looked even tinier sobbing in her rocking chair. Without that damn cat to compete for rocker space, I crawled on to Grandma’s lap and cried and cried and cried. I was completely happy and completely sad.

That duality has returned many times over the years, most recently, last month with a Marquette University basketball game as the backdrop.  The happiness meter was off the charts. My daughters and their friends, our friends from college and beyond college and their children and their friends all surrounded me.

I was so happy, and yet, the notable absence of those loved ones who can only be present in spirit and in memory left me so, so very sad.

There ought to be a word for that blend of emotion, but I couldn’t come up with one.

And, then, perhaps not so ironically, Death entered my mind.

Death, the narrator of Markus Zusak’s remarkable novel The Book Thief, is a surprisingly likable and humorous character. He speaks of first seeing the colors associated with his difficult work, and then he sees the faces.

Perhaps my emotion could be articulated through color? For me, 100% happy is a spectacular fuchsia, and my 100% sad would be a gunmetal blue-grey.  So it would stand to reason that this dichotomous emotion I experience would be a welcoming, soothing, peaceful color in the deep purplish end of the color chart.

A feeling only attainable when the brilliance of blessings—cherished, now mourned, from the past, savored and protected in the present, and dreamt of and hoped for the future—blend into one.

Benjamin Moore Paint color 2116-30 is named Cabernet.  Sounds good to me.